Recorded April 7, 1937
Track Time 2:45
Written by Benjamin R. Hanby
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Harry, Herbert, Donald and John Mills, vocal; Bernard Addison, guitar
Originally released on Decca 1245
Currently available on CD: On Ambassador 1903, "Louis Armstrong Vol. 3, 1936-1936)
Available on Itunes? Yes.
Louis Armstrong signed with Jack Kapp's Decca label in 1935 and immediately commenced a series of recordings of pop songs and jazz favorites backed by Luis Russell's big band. Towards the end of 1936, Kapp began mixing and matching Armstrong with other Decca labelmates including a session with Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra, a recording of tunes from the Pennies From Heaven soundtrack with Bing Crosby and Frances Langford and two, count 'em two, Hawaiian-themed sessions, one with The Polynesians and one with Andy Iona and His Islanders. In April of 1937, Armstrong was teamed with the very popular Mills Brothers. Originally billed as "Four Boys and a Guitar," the brothers Mills suffered a serious setback the previous year when guitarist John Jr. passed away. Their father, John Sr., joined the band and for a short time, jazz guitar great Bernard Addison filled in on guitar.
The combination of the Mills's hornlike voices and the mellowness of Armstrong's tenor during this period proved quite natural and the combination would be repeated three more times in the Decca studios, as well as on numerous radio broadcasts. What's odd about their first pairing was the choice of material: "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" and "Darling Nelly Gray," two songs that harkened back to the days of slavery. "Virginny" was written in 1878 by James A. Bland, a black man, and contained lines such as "There's where this old darkie's heart does long to go" and "There's where I labored so hard for dear ol' massa." I know...yikes. The folk music period was just getting off the ground and this were clearly thought of as a folk song but having two of the most popular black acts in America cover it was pretty risky. Fortunately, Armstrong tramples over it immediately with a perfect scat break and manages to swing it throughout in double time, changing phrases where he sees fit ("dear ol' massa" becomes "old master") and contributing a swift, relaxed trumpet solo.
As for "Darling Nelly Gray," the subject of this blog, it was written in 1856 by Benjamin R. Hanby, a white man, and tells the emotional tale of two slaves whose love affair is ended one one is sold. According to the website "Owen Sound's Black History," "It is believed this little song was a major force in shaping public opinion on the issue of slavery, leading to the great Democratic victory of 1860 and the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States." (http://www.osblackhistory.com/nellygray.php) The song is only 16-bars long but that never stopped Armstrong (look at what he did with 16 bars of "Mack the Knife"). Two charming takes survive and it's amazing how similar they are (I write this with my wife staring at me in disbelief as I have one headphone from my Ipod in my left ear playing take 1 and one headphone in my left ear, playing take 2!).
"Darling Nelly Gray" starts out with one of my favorite lost sounds in jazz: the acoustic guitar, here played by Bernard Addison. The Mills then sing the melody fairly straight, sounding as lovely as ever. Then Armstrong comes in, also sticking fairly close to the melody, with an added emphasis on the word "they" and a perfectly placed "oh babe." Behind him, the Mills hum on the first and third beats of every measure, a technique often employed by the horns on some of Armstrong's earlier big band recordings (think "Stardust" behind his trumpet). The trumpet solo is a model of relaxed swing, with the brothers effectively backing him with more hornlike rhythmic punctuations. The Mills's start singing again while Armstrong keeps blowing, starting with five repeated concert C's. Not technically an obbligato, it sounds more like Armstrong continues soloing over the vocal. Finally, he puts down the horn and says, "Now boys, what you think of this?" He then infuses the final chorus with infectious spirit, finally ditching the written melody and creating something much more swinging. The scat break is Armstrong 101 and he even has fun with the lyrics, changing it from "I'm sitting by the river and I'm weepin' all the day" to "I'm sitting by the river and I'm all in a shiver." The cherry on top is a scat cadenza where Armstrong's first phrase is exactly the same as the one he sang during his break just a few seconds before (if it works, it works!). The break grows increasingly more complicated as one can hear the Armstrong horn push the same phrases out. The Mills Brothers might have sounded more like an actual horn section, but no one could swing out trumpet licks with his voice as Armstrong! The closing scat takes up 29 seconds and I would gladly pay to hear it go on for a few hours.
Another take was made and as I already wrote, the similarities are striking even if the tempo is a shade slower. There's a slight difference in Armstrong's vocal phrasing with a pause after the phrase "And I'll never" and an added emphasis on the first syllable of the word "darling." Remembering his repeated C's on his second trumpet chorus on take one, he begins his solo on the alternate with six C's. Otherwise, the rest of his first chorus is almost identical to take one, right down to the little blown asides and even the closing phrase before the Mills reenter (featuring an Ab over a C chord, a nice use of a flatted 13th). When the Mills come back in, he added a little pause after the first two C's, setting up a little tension and then plays more of an obbligato this time. Otherwise, when he reenters vocally, Armstrong repeats what he did on the first take, even singing the scat cadenza exactly the same note-for-note! It's a toss-up, but I actually like take 2 a little better, though there's nothing wrong with the originally issued first take.
Okay, flash forward to 1940. The coupling of "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" and "Darling Nelly Gray" was a something of a hit for Armstrong and the Mills Brothers (Virginia adopted the former as its state song in 1940) so Armstrong began featuring "Nelly Gray" with his big band. Fortunately, a broadcast from the Cotton Club on April 9, 1940 survives, even though the sound is far from pristine. It opens with the sound of two guitar chords so obviously the arrangement carried over the guitar introduction, though most of it isn't heard on the issued version. Where the Mills Brothers once sang, the band now plays the melody fairly straight, with some simple responses by the reeds (you can hear Armstrong's lead in the beginning). Armstrong humorously says, "Poor Nelly, I feel sorry for poor Nelly, that's right, Gate," before singing. Now the reeds emphasize the first and third beats much as the Mills did on the original. Armstrong takes two trumpet solos and they're a delight. The solos borrow liberally from both of the original takes, with the repeated C's, the same ending phrase of the first chorus, and a nice high Ab that originally served as part of the obbligato to the Mills's reentry. Armstrong's swinging vocal chorus is much the same as the original, right down to the scat cadenza...that cadenza worked so why would Armstrong bother to change it?
Okay, if you're still with me, you're probably salivating to hear these recordings and form your own opinions. However, that's nearly impossible and it's a damn shame. A Jazz Archives disc with all the Armstrong-Mills Brothers performances is out of print, as is volume 3 of the indispensable Ambassador series (though used copies can be found on Amazon). You can download take 1 on Itunes but good luck finding take 2. And as far as the live recording goes, that was part of Volume 10 of the Ambassador series, "Live at the Cotton Club 1939-1942." This CD was released just last year and I think it's one of the most important Armstrong releases in decades. Completely unreleased performances of tunes Armstrong never recorded like "You Don' Know What Love Is" and "As Time Goes By." There's pre-recording session runthroughs of "I Never Knew" and "Cash For Your Trash." There's different arrangements of "Basin Street Blues," "Song of the Islands" and "I Surrender Dear." And finally, a smoking version of Chappie Willet's arrangement of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" that is just as good as the classic Decca record. Unforunately, it's almost impossible to find. Type "Louis Armstrong Live Cotton Club" on Google and you'll get plenty of references to Armstrong fronting Seabastian's New Cotton Club Orchestra but nothing about this CD. Go deeper and add the words "Ambassador CD" and you'll get a few listings of the CD but it's only available on Italian, Spanish and German websites. Amazon has never listed it. As for me, I had to order it through Tower Records's Dublin website, paying almost $40 when all was said and done.
On top of that, a recording survives of Armstrong and the Mills Brothers performing "Darling Nelly Gray" together live on the "Fleichmann Yeast Show" from a little over a month after the Decca recording. Armstrong's tremendously important "Fleischmann Yeast Show" performances survive and were transferred and remastered by Director of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives Michael Cogswell but his previous deal to get them out on CD fell through and now their future release is uncertain. Has Louis Armstrong become so disrespected that previously unissued, important live recordings of the 1930s and 1940s aren't worthy of issuing in the United States? I absolutely love Monk and Mingus and Bird and Miles and every year, major labels bend over backwards to release some unearthed concert or box set by one of them (like the recent Mingus Cornell concert). I think if Sony had a recording of Miles ordering breakfast, they'd release it but full Armstrong concerts Columbia recorded in the 1950s continue to gather dust in the Sony vaults. When rare broadcasts are issued, as on the Cotton Club set, they're impossible to find and when other rare mementos are found, such as the Fleischmann broadcasts, they're impossible to issue. I think it's nonsense. I didn't set out to get so heated in this entry (poor Nelly Gray, indeed!) but I think a sort of complacency has grown around Armstrong and it's just not fair. His entire career should be treated the same as Monk's and Bird's and Miles's and Mingus's because without Pops, there wouldn't have been any of them. Now let's get some of more of that unreleased material out!
(Slight glimmer of optimism: Armstrong's set at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival will be released on August 21...1958 was a vintage year for Pops and I have high hopes!)